Save That Funky Music

September 15, 1991|By AUSTIN E. GISRIEL

The decade of the '70s was exhausting and depressing in many ways. It began with Kent State and ended with the Iranian hostage situation. We were still fighting in Vietnam for the first five years, we suffered through Watergate, and we endured two gasoline shortages.

Ah, the good old days; at least for me, and for anyone else in his early- to mid-30s. Why were they so good? What kept us going through it all? What did we do with our youth? We danced and danced and danced to disco music.

Do you remember disco music? Of course you do, because if you are as old as I am, then somewhere on your record shelf is the soundtrack to "Saturday Night Fever," still one of the best selling records of all time.

You remember what happened to our music, too. The avant garde, including most rock critics, figured that anything so popular with the people must be seriously flawed. They decried its silly lyrics and lack of social relevancy, and, to this day, such people like to believe that we all saw the light and converted to their version of true rock 'n' roll.

In fact, disco music was so pervasive that it became a victim of its own popularity. After all, something had to give when parents were listening to the disco version of "Deck the Halls" at Christmas; kids were listening to "Sesame Street Fever;" and people were actually buying a record entitled "Disco Duck," on which Rick Dees sounded like Barry White on helium.

I would suggest that disco music was, indeed, the last great development of rock 'n' roll. It had a great beat and was easy to dance to. It paid unceasing tribute to the two things on every teen-ager's mind, namely sex and romance. In the truest tradition of rock 'n' roll, disco music encouraged the latter and substituted for the former.

That is what the music of Elvis and Chuck Berry and Little Richard and the early Beatles was all about. It has been said that when the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper, rock 'n' roll matured, and it made you want to sit down and listen to the music. I would submit that that was the day on which rock 'n' roll became something else; something akin to classical music, really, if it makes you want to sit and listen. That's fine, but real rock 'n' roll, by definition, should make you want to grab your honey and do the horizontal bop right there on your parents' living-room floor, and, since that is impractical, it provides the opportunity to vertically bop across the dance floor instead.

Admittedly, I am no rock critic, but then, that is a contradiction in terms. What's to criticize? It either has a good beat or it doesn't. It's rock 'n' roll, not opera, and its best trends have been spontaneous. A rock critic ought to be defined as any parent who is scared of the fact that his innocent daughter is now filled with the urges and desires that filled him at the same age.

We are now a whole decade removed from the '70s, and it is time to give the era and its music its due. Of course the lyrics lacked social relevancy. That was the point. We had all the social relevancy we wanted waiting in gas lines for hours before delight. If we had wanted our consciousness raised, we would have attended an encounter group. We just wanted to dance.

The disco era was also the last era of musical innocence. Today it seems that many songs are political platforms set to music. Rap music often deals with sexuality, but usually in the context of doing something to someone, not with someone. Then there are the "headbangers," 40-year-old men with metal jock straps worn outside their pants, screaming about drugs or suicide or some pseudo-nihilistic philosophy that somehow includes a lot of half-clad women in the videos.

Lest you think that I am just another old fogey, constantly growing fogier, I would point out that these are the sentiments of my high-school students. (I teach junior English.) And to quote Shakespeare, I do spy a kind of hope. When I was in high school, the '50s were enjoying a revival. All through the '80s and today, the '60s are being celebrated. As someone who works with young people, it seems that a '70s revival is on the horizon.

Even Billboard magazine has noted this trend in a recent article entitled "Something Funky's Happening To Rock," stating that today's artists are "rediscovering '70s funk," music that is only one step removed from disco. Indeed, every time I scan MTV I see a group doing a remake of another '70s classic. Vanilla Ice's "Play That Funky Music" and Gerardo's "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker" are two notable examples.

Students ask with great interest if I ever streaked anyone. (Talk about innocent: what possible harm could come from anyone who runs naked through public gatherings?) One student borrowed my Average White Band album. Still others were anxious to discuss what they had seen on VH-1 during a recent nTC Fabulous '70s Sunday." Many complain that their school dances are flat and lifeless. "You really had good dance music," they say to me.

As someone who lived and loved and grew up in the disco era, I am delighted. In spite of what the so-called critics say, I did have fun doing the hustle and bumping to "Fire" and falling in love listening to "Three Times a Lady," and all their intellectualism cannot change that. We all had fun. Isn't that what music, especially rock music, is supposed to be about?

It's time for music critics to acknowledge the music of my generation; it's time for kids to start dancing again; it's time to dust off the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and relive some good old days. It's time to recognize the disco era for what it really was: one long streak of fun.

Austin Gisriel, a teacher, lives in Middletown.

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